Welcome to the Jungle; We Got No Fun or Games

Name and Place for September 30 (’14)


80In the course of time, some books change everything.  In 1906, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was just such a book.  It led to the passage of laws and aided in the formation of government institutions seeking to protect consumers.  It’s impact is still felt more than 100 years later, even while few Americans are required to read it in school.

Aside from its exposé of the horrendous beef industry in early 20th century Chicago, Sinclair is a gifted writer.  Here are two snippets to enjoy, the first from the opening pages; the second from chapter 14 where the meat industry gets diced (!).

The little person who leads this trio is an inspired man.  His fiddle is out of tune, and there is no rosin in his bow, but still he is an inspired man—the hands of the muses have been laid upon him.  He plays like one possessed by a demon, by a whole horde of demons.  You can feel them in the air round about him, capering frenetically; with their invisible feet they set the pace, and the hair of the leader of the orchestra rises on end, and his eyeballs start from their sockets, as he toils to keep up with them.

Tamoszius Kuszleika is his name, and he has taught himself to play the violin by practicing all night, after working all day on the “killing beds.”  He is in his shirt sleeves, with a vest figured with faded gold horseshoes, and a pink-striped shirt, suggestive of peppermint candy.  A pair of military trousers, light blue with a yellow stripe, serve to give that suggestion of authority proper to the leader of a band.  He is only five feet high, but even so these trousers akuszleika_and_co__by_bravokrofski-d73qwnfre about eight inches short of the ground.  You wonder where he could have gotten them—or rather you would wonder, if the excitement of being in his presence left you time to think of such things.

[The band is] hardly worthy of Tamoszius, the other two members of the orchestra.  The second violin is a Slovak, a tall, gaunt man with black-rimmed spectacles and the mute and patient look of an over-driven mule; he responds to the whip but feebly, and then always falls back into his old rut.  The third man is very fat, with a round, red, sentimental nose, and he plays with his eyes turned up to the sky and a look of infinite yearning.  He is playing a bass part upon his cello, and so the excitement is nothing to him; no matter what happens in the treble, it is his task to saw out one long-drawn and lugubrious note after another, from four o’clock in the afternoon until nearly the same hour next morning, for his third of the total income of one dollar per hour.

Now [Tamo] is in his glory, dominating the scene.  Some of the people are eating, some are laughing and talking—but you will make a great mistake if you think there is one of them who does not hear him.  His notes are never true, and his fiddle buzzes on the low ones and squeaks and scratches on the high; but these things they heed no more than they heed the dirt and noise and squalor about them—it is out of the material that they have to build their lives, with it that they have to utter their souls.  And this is their utterance; merry and boisterous, or mournful and wailing, or passionate and rebellious, this music is their music, music of home.  It stretches out its arms to them, they have only to give themselves up.  Chicago and its saloons and its slums fade away—there are green meadows and sunlit rivers, mighty forests and snowclad hills.  They behold home landscapes and childhood scenes returning; old loves and friendships begin to waken, old joys and griefs to laugh and weep.  Some fall back and close their eyes, some beat upon the table.  Now and then one leaps up with a cry and calls for this song or that; and then the fire leaps brighter in Tamoszius’ eyes, and he flings up his fiddle and shouts to his companions, and away they go in mad career” (4-5, selected quotes).

And from Chapter 14, on the meat industry itself, which the above characters endured as a living Hell:

There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for meatpackingplantsausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be doused with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption.  There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs.  There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it.  It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of dried dung of rats.  These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together….There were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit” (112).

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